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Ex-etiquette: Kids teach stepmom the meaning of Christmas

Jann Blackstone, Tribune News Service on

Published in Family Living

I'm often asked about gift giving at this time of year, in particular, shopping for gifts for people you probably don't want to deal with -- in my case, it was my husband's ex. Contrary to what I advise other co-parents, my husband and I moved very quickly when we decided to move in together. (That's the reason I always say to go slow at the beginning when there are kids in the mix -- I saw firsthand the damage it can do if you move too quickly.) He had two kids, I had one, and we later added one of "ours."

I started this Bonus Family experiment a long time ago--in 1989. My husband explained he had joint custody, but I thought that meant joint custody like I had joint custody -- every other weekend and I rarely spoke to my children's father. I soon came to see that his idea of joint custody was not standard--at least in those days. The kids went back and forth every other week and his ex was always around. We were not crazy about each other -- she still had a key to my house and used it and I was bathing her kids. After watching the kids' reaction each time we were in the same vicinity, she and I decided we had to at least act cordial for their sake--but it took years, mainly because we didn't know better. We, like so many others, were attempting a joint custody co-parenting parenting plan with an old fashion attitude about how you act after a break-up. We knew something had to change.

I remember the first time I took the kids out to buy a Christmas present for their mother. Their dad had left it to the last minute, which was typical. I thought he was crazy and told him so. He didn't care, he just needed my help, so reluctantly, I loaded the kids in the car and we headed for the mall.

When you buy a present for someone, you must consider what they like. I didn't know, so I had to consult the kids. I watched as they lit up talking about their mom -- and that's was the "ah ha moment." It wasn't me against her -- it was all of us for the kids we all loved.

As the kids and I considered this or that for their mother's present, my then 9-year-old bonusdaughter, squealed "This is so fun!" I can still hear her voice -- and there was a shift. Rather than feel jealousy or anger, the act that I had been dreading instantly became a privilege. From then on, each year I took the kids out to buy a present for their mother. Sometimes their dad went, sometimes he didn't, but the act of openly considering what their mother might like brought us closer. Although we never discussed it, it brought their mom and I closer, as well. She knew who was buying the presents and it changed her attitude toward me, as well.


You know the saying, "Out of the mouths of babes?" My kids taught me the meaning behind the season, no matter your faith, is love. I realized first hand, we, all the parents who took care of them, were teaching them how to be in a relationship and solve conflict gracefully -- and that became the root of good ex-etiquette. Happy Holidays to you all.

(Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website at

(c)2017 Jann Blackstone

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